Surely, in the minds of young actors, no prospect is more eagerly anticipated, or more acutely distressing than a chance to play the Danish prince. Shakespeare’s longest and perhaps most ubiquitous work, Hamlet has been a staple of curricula in English classes for centuries. In more recent memory, the titular role has been filled by such marquee giants as Lawrence Olivier, Kenneth Branagh, and Benedict Cumberbatch — whose performance on the stage of London’s Barbican Theatre runs concurrently with the Hart House production that opened on November 4. What could be a greater thrill, or stress, depending? How noble in endeavour, how infinite in interpretation.
Director Paulo Santalucia’s modern staging is an interpretation punching above most, one that offers a pleasantly contemporary taste of wartime Denmark and her conflicted nobility. In his debut at the helm of a Hart House production, Santalucia achieves the difficult feat of making a classic feel new, while still preserving its delicate familiarity.
Immediate commendation is owed to set and costume designer Nancy Perrin. Perrin’s small space is at once a surprisingly versatile setting — shifting easily from throne room to outdoors — as well as a poignant reflection of the inner claustrophobia of its characters. A large collection of wooden chairs thrown haphazardly into a pile dominates the right side of the stage. A cumbersome addition perhaps, yet time and again the production manages to incorporate the chairs in believable and creative ways: a place for Hamlet to consult with his father’s ghost, Ophelia’s precarious tree branch, the peak of a mound of graveyard dirt.
However, what is Hamlet without Hamlet? Dan Mousseau’s portrayal of the famous prince is satisfactorily a case study in bipolar contradiction and conflict. In the lighter scenes — and there are some — the hilarious indifference with which Mousseau delivers Shakespeare’s words provides a comically entertaining reading of the text (it can’t all be suicidal depression). Still, these moments only seem to act as manic anticipation of the downs. The cumulative effect, from one moment to the next, is an unfortunate sense that Hamlet isn’t really speaking to anyone but himself throughout.
The more quotable soliloquies are delivered with appropriate gravitas but are at times constrained by the stage, such as in the infinitely recognizable “To be, or not to be… ” When one might expect the heretofore-energetic Hamlet to pace and gesticulate wildly in a fit of contemplation, the cramped space forces Mousseau flatly to his knees.
Despite these grievances, Mousseau is clearly in his element and inspires the audience to constantly rethink the character they thought they knew, while simultaneously having a little bit of fun at everyone’s expense.
The production also features an excellent performance by veteran Thomas Gough as Polonius, who makes for a great foil for Mousseau in some scenes. Sheelagh Daly shines as Ophelia, who, following Polonius’ tragic death, turns on one of the most convincing and distressing performances of despondency I have ever seen. Fierce friend to the cursed prince, Horatio played by Eric Finlayson also turned in a noteworthy performance.
Hart House’s production of Hamlet runs until Nov. 21